Jim Dey: Turner hoping to take one to the House

Years ago, Scott Turner ran on football fields at Memorial Stadium and around the NFL. These days, he's still running, although not as fast and in a different venue.

As a member of the Texas House of Representatives, the former Illini is active in politics while serving as director of business development for a computer software firm and as a lay minister at both his business and church. He also mentors high school athletes being recruited to play in college, telling them what's important to be successful in the real world as well as in sports.

It's a busy life for the 42-year-old Turner, who marvels at the broad range of experiences he's enjoyed.

"Every time I think about it, I always thank the Lord for his grace," said Turner, who lives in Frisco, Texas, a community near Dallas.

It is quite a story, the combination of hard work and serendipity.

A star high school football player in Richardson, Texas, Turner was recruited by pure chance to Illinois in the early 1990s by then-head coach John Mackovic. It was equally fortuitous that Turner, a running back and wide receiver, was converted to cornerback as a senior, a position switch that led to his nine-year pro career.

Finally, it was an internship with a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that ultimately led to his interest in politics, first running unsuccessfully for Congress in California in 2006 and, after moving back home, launching a winning bid for the Texas House in 2012. Even now, Turner is planning his next move, and it's something of a long shot.

A Republican who is running unopposed in November, he's challenging the incumbent Speaker of the Texas House in a contest that will be decided next year by members of the GOP caucus.

"It is ambitious," conceded Turner, who said things have a way of working out for those who combine a strong work ethic with humility and integrity.

Things certainly worked out for him at the UI, even though his decision to come here was circuitous.

Turner said he was recruited by a number of schools and originally intended to go to Arkansas. But he recalled that one of his teammates, Frank Basso, invited Turner to his home one Friday afternoon before an evening football game, and that began his long association with the Basso family.

"Mr. and Mrs. Basso literally treated me then and treat me now as their own child. They came alongside me and were a tremendous help," said Turner, who noted that his own parents were divorced. Mr. Basso was an aeronautical engineer and a UI graduate. So when Turner told the Basso family that he was interested in Arkansas, Mr. Basso had another idea.

"He said, 'No, you're going to Illinois, and you'll get a great education,'" Turner said. "The cold weather shook me up a little bit, but I enjoyed every minute of my time at Illinois."

Turner got both a degree and a wife at the UI. He and Robin have been married for 18 years, and they are rearing Turner's 13-year-old nephew, Solomon.

Big Ten football was tough. Turner said he sustained a broken jaw as a junior wide receiver, the injury putting an end to his career on offense. Coaches switched him to cornerback, a position for which he was well-suited because of his blazing speed.

Turner, who also ran track at the UI, started as a senior and caught the eye of NFL scouts when he ran a 4.24-second 40-yard dash.

"When you run a fast time in the 40-yard dash, it kind of catches their attention," Turner said.

He was subsequently taken in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins and played nine years for the Redskins, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. Turner recalls the game as brutal and said he sustained a variety of injuries, including multiple concussions. He said he has had hip surgery and still faces issues with his joints and arthritis.

"It is a dangerous sport. When you sign up to play football, you know the chances of being injured," said Turner, who noted that the games "make me cringe when I see them now."

"The athletes are different," he said. "They're all so big."

His NFL experience opened the door to politics. Turner said he first became interested in history and politics when he lived in the nation's capital. Then, when he moved to San Diego, he took advantage of an NFL player internship program by working for California Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter — and thoroughly enjoyed it.

"I knew it was something I could do and that fit me," he said.

Turner worked for Hunter while he played in the NFL and after he retired from football in 2003. He ran for Congress in California in 2006, but lost in the GOP primary.

Turner said he moved back home to Texas in 2007 to be reunited with his family. He works for Systemware but found himself drawn back to politics as a candidate in the 2012 election.

A Republican and a self-described conservative, Turner acknowledged that he's different from the vast majority of black Americans who are Democrats.

"I get a lot of questions (about it). But it gives me the opportunity to educate people," he said.

The legislature in Texas is far different than in Illinois. Texans are suspicious of government, so they limit the legislature's meeting time to 140 days every two years.

Unlike Illinois, where legislators are very well-paid and have generous pension benefits, Texas legislators are paid just $7,200 a year.

But Turner said his interest in politics is "not about the money," that he and his colleagues are "citizen-legislators." He said his goal is to be a "servant-leader" and "to consider others more important than myself."

"If I had one message for students at the UI, it would be, 'Dream big and never quit. If you want to be great, help someone else be great,'" he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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